Last week it was Job. Today, it’s Naomi’s turn. We’ve heard of the suffering of Job, but we don’t hear so much about Naomi’s suffering. It’s high time that changed.
Perhaps it doesn’t help Naomi’s case that her book isn’t named after her. We have the Book of Job, and the Book of…Ruth. Of course, Ruth deserves to have her name on a book, but…it really is the story of Naomi. Let’s not forget Naomi.
Who was Naomi? She was was the wife of Elimelech, and the mother of two sons. Unlike Job, she wasn’t fabulously wealthy. In fact, when a famine came this little family found itself unable to feed itself. (For those who love irony, they were from Bethlehem—which means ‘house of bread’.)
I feel ‘famished’ sometimes. That’s when I go to the fridge and see what I can find. I really haven’t got a clue what a famine is. Naomi and Elimelech couldn’t feed their sons. They couldn’t bear to see them starve to death. So they left their home, left everything and everyone familiar, and went to live in Moab as foreigners. Moab was an old enemy of Israel. You’d really have to be desperate to go to Moab—but they could eat there, and survive.
Naomi and Elimelech give me a renewed appreciation of ‘boat people’—I can ‘get’ why parents would put their children on a leaky boat and brave the dangerous miles to the Australian coast. You’d do anything to give your kids a life.
Elimelech and Naomi would do anything. They’d even take their two sons Mahlon and Chilion to Moab.
Things don’t go well down in Moab. The very first thing we read is that Elimelech dies. Mahlon and Chilion marry Moabite girls, Orpah and Ruth. These two girls would not have been among the most desirable that Moab had to offer. Think about it: Mahlon and Chilion were foreigners. If Ruth and Orpah were good catches for marriage, their families would have promised them to good Moabite men, not to these incomers, these Jewish foreigners.
The story also hints that Naomi’s sons weren’t a good catch either. Names mean something in this story: Bethlehem is ‘House of Bread’; Naomi means ‘Pleasant’; Ruth means ‘Friend’ or ‘Companion’. Elimelech means ‘God is King’, so we see that he was a faithful man. But Mahlon means ‘Puny’, and Chilion ‘Weak’.
The girls whose families couldn’t find Moabite husbands for them were teamed up with poor examples of Israelite manhood.
A full ten years go by, and there is yet more shame: neither couple has produced a child. Naomi is denied the comfort of grandchildren.
Then, the final straw: Mahlon and Chilion, ‘puny’ and ‘weak’, die. The women were alone, and that spelt disaster. With no man to represent them, to speak for them, they were destitute. They had no social security, no income and no legal rights.
See why Naomi is ‘the female Job’? She lost everything—her home in Bethlehem, husband, sons, rights. She had nothing left but two Moabite daughters-in-law.
And what on earth could she do with them?
Naomi decided to return home. She’d heard that there was food in Bethlehem now. Just maybe in ‘The House of Bread’ she could throw herself on the charity of family. But even there, she had no means of looking after Ruth and Orpah. Yet she set off with them in tow. To us, that may seem strange. Didn’t they have an option to stay behind?
The fact is, Ruth and Orpah had also lost everything. They couldn’t go back to their families; upon marriage, each one had become part of her husband’s family. They had lost their place in their families of origin. They couldn’t return to them unless Naomi released them.
Perhaps Naomi was struggling with herself, because she stops on the way and does just that—she releases her daughters-in-law and tells them to return to Moab and find husbands for themselves. Both Ruth and Orpah refuse, declaring that they will go with her.
Naomi tries a second time, saying as she does:
…my daughters, it has been far more bitter for me than for you, because the hand of the Lord has turned against me.
Naomi is not returning to Bethlehem with any great hope. She is going home with a broken heart. Her faith had been stretched to breaking point.
There’s one very important thing here: Naomi is facing her pain. She isn’t distracting herself with busy-ness or alcohol or computer games. However, she no longer trusts God; I suspect she is going home to die.
This second time Orpah does return her people, weeping as she goes; we can see that Orpah loved Naomi. Naomi pleads with Ruth yet a third time to turn back, and again Ruth refuses. Naomi gives up, and lets Ruth come with her.
Four things to note concerning this well-known biblical passage:
- It is one of the few scripture passages in which only women appear. Naomi, Ruth and Orpah may have thought they were on the scrapheap of life, but they don’t need a man to be significant in God’s eyes.
- Naomi is at rock-bottom, but her concern is for Ruth and Orpah. (She reminds me of Jesus here, who placed his mother in the care of the Beloved Disciple while he hung on the cross.)
- There is no criticism whatsoever of Orpah for returning to her people and her gods.
- Ruth’s reaction is simply stunning.
In fact, Ruth makes all the difference here. If Naomi is a female Job, Ruth is no ‘Job’s comforter’. Ruth is the real thing. The words she speaks are words of absolute fidelity and total commitment.
Do not press me to leave you
or to turn back from following you!
Where you go, I will go;
where you lodge, I will lodge;
your people shall be my people,
and your God my God.
Where you die, I will die—
there will I be buried.
May the Lord do thus and so to me,
and more as well,
if even death parts me from you!
How could Naomi refuse her? Ruth was giving her whole life to Naomi. For her sake, Ruth was prepared to be the foreigner. She was going to Bethlehem as a barren Moabite widow. And what did the Bible say? In Deuteronomy 23.3 we read this:
No Ammonite or Moabite shall be admitted to the assembly of the Lord. Even to the tenth generation, none of their descendants shall be admitted to the assembly of the Lord.
It seemed that Ruth had no chance of getting anywhere in Bethlehem society!
You see the difference between Job’s comforters and Ruth? She wasn’t trying to find an answer to the ‘Why?’ question. She wasn’t trying to argue with Naomi and put her right. She just loved her as her own mother. She took Naomi’s people and Naomi’s God as her own. Ruth didn’t need to have the answers; she was the answer.
If Job’s comforters are a terrible example of what not to do and say while you are comforting someone in distress, Ruth is a beautiful example of a true friend in need. (No wonder her very name means ‘Friend’ or ‘Companion!)
When people are in distress, they don’t want someone to sort them out and give them the right answers. They want companions, people who’ll walk the way with them. A cuppa together, a hug or a kind word goes further than almost anything else. And guess what? That’s not beyond any one of us.
We need more ‘Ruths’ around us when we’re going through tough times. We can also be ‘Ruths’ to others. We need love ahead of ‘right’ answers; the search for the right answer can be a distraction. And as unhelpful to someone in need as it was to Job.
That’s where today’s Old Testament Reading leaves the story of Naomi and Ruth.
It leaves Naomi returning home without hope, but with a friend who loves her enough to stay with her. It leaves Naomi returning without hope, but with a companion who has put her own trust in God, whose faith will support Naomi through her distress.
God calls us to be ‘Ruths’ to one another. People who support one another through difficult times. People who put faith into practice, sometimes just by a gentle word. ‘Ruths’ don’t need to know the answers.
God works through ‘Ruths’. God uses them to raise ‘Naomis’ up from rock bottom. God can use us to bring life to others once more. God works his grace and mercy through us, if we will show his love as Ruth did. Amen.